In the long and at times tragic road of Armenian history, we find ourselves currently in a particularly unique circumstance. Uniqueness is difficult to attain when your history has over four thousand years as a nation state. Today, the Armenian nation has two democratic states—one recognized on an international level and one unrecognized by a world filled with self-interest. Both, however, are not only recognized by the global Armenian nation but are embraced with love. The Republics of Armenia and Artsakh are also threatened by a traditional enemy—the Turkish alliance of Azerbaijan and Turkey, bent on the destruction of what was once the greater Armenian Highlands. What is particularly interesting is that while one would think that their interests are commonly held, there are unique needs for both states that are creating significant challenges within our global community.
The Republic of Artsakh was created in 1991 during a clear threat to the peaceful Armenian population by the Azerbaijani aggressors. With the Soviet Union crumbling, the people of Artsakh legally and peacefully applied to reunite with Armenia. Referendums were held, and legal processes were followed. Azerbaijan, which never had any sovereign rights to Nagorno-Karabakh (Soviet oblast name) attempted to destroy the Armenians with a vicious military invasion as a response to Artsakh’s peaceful exercise of their rights. The result was an Azeri defeat and the creation of the republic in 1991. Azerbaijan requested the ceasefire but has never honored that, or any agreement for that matter, over the last 30 years. During this period, the Armenians of Artsakh, blockaded and under constant military threat, have been a functioning democracy with a market economy. It has been an inspiration. Azerbaijan remains a hostile dictatorship. The heroic resistance of the people of Artsakh clearly prevented another genocide of innocent Armenians.
Despite the rhetoric of peace from Azerbaijan that continues today, their objective remains to destroy Armenian Artsakh, and also Armenia itself, to open a pan-Turkic pathway from Ankara to the Caspian and Central Asia. Until 2018, when the Velvet Revolution occurred in Armenia, the prior leaders of Armenia (Sargsyan and Kocharyan) were from Artsakh, which created a unifying dynamic of sorts between Armenia and maturing Artsakh. Although plagued by corruption and the need for democratic reforms, the relationship was aided by the common background of the two previous presidents. The Turkish alliance has focused on dividing the Armenians to weaken our limited capability. This has been particularly true since the Pashinyan administration took power in 2018. Turkey and Azerbaijan have invested significant resources in identifying the diaspora as the problem in “normalizing” relations between Turkey and Armenia. Turkey blames the diaspora’s obsession with the “1915 events” as preventing friendly relations between two modern nations. Duplicitous as ever, Turkey also claimed to enter good faith negotiations with Armenia without pre-conditions until they publicly linked any agreement to resolving the Artsakh crisis with Azerbaijan. The current global geopolitical alignments have also strained relations between Armenia and Artsakh by creating separate and parallel paths. For example, there are currently three “peace” talks in some form of process. The normalization talks with Turkey are separate and distinct yet plagued by Turkish pre-conditions. The peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan are focused on demarcation and delimitation of the border, but Azerbaijan refuses to discuss Artsakh as they believe the matter was resolved as a result of the 2020 war.
The attempts to revive the Artsakh dialogue have been slow as the OSCE Minsk group was outflanked by Russia after the 2020 war (Russia solely brokered the tripartite November 2020 agreement). Azerbaijan continues to attack and occupy some of Armenia’s sovereign territory in a gross violation of international law to force Armenia’s capitulation on Artsakh. In other words, they are attempting to decouple Artsakh from Armenia and the peace plans, thus isolating Artsakh from Armenia’s protection. This process began in 2020 when Russian peacekeepers became the “guarantor” of peace between Artsakh and Azerbaijan. There have been several incidents where Russian troops have been slow to respond and tolerating Azerbaijani intimidation. There is no substitute for the protectors to be those that own the territory. The Russian-led CSTO has thus far refused to commit a military presence to defend Armenia’s borders despite a mutual defense pact and the presence of Russian bases in Armenia.
Russia’s inability to honor their responsibility and their preoccupation with the Ukraine war have created an opportunity for the re-entry of the West into the mix. The EU and OSCE currently have observer missions in Armenia. Last week, a Congressional delegation returned from an investigative visit to Armenia. In addition, Europe has sponsored several meetings under the auspices of Charles Michel while the US State Department has also been active. These campaigns are nearly unprecedented as they have identified Azerbaijan as the aggressor in their attacks on Armenia. They have repeatedly called for Azerbaijani withdrawal from Armenian territory and the release of all POWs. In addition, Armenia and Artsakh have prepared documents on the war crimes committed by Azerbaijan. It is important to note that the West’s assertive comments are focused on Armenia, not on Artsakh. The position on Artsakh remains a neutral position of mutual peace. Given the volume of diplomatic activity and military threats, it will be difficult to completely isolate the solutions for Artsakh and Armenia, but some level of decoupling is in progress.
There has been strong opposition from the diaspora and domestic political opponents to Armenia’s position on Artsakh. The rhetoric of support continues, but there is a perception that the states are not fully aligned. The leaders of Artsakh, including President Arayik Harutyunyan and Foreign Minister Davit Babayan, have stated as recently as this week that any solution that includes a government relationship under Azerbaijan is unacceptable. What will be the impact of Ruben Vardanyan’s recent appointment as state minister? Artsakh continues to focus on its political rights, while Armenia seems to be focused on the human rights and security of the Armenian population. We no longer hear from Armenia about the classic battle between “territorial integrity and self-determination.” The change in rhetoric has led to the perception of abandonment, although I believe that is too strong a criticism. What seems to be happening is that Armenia itself is at risk due to Azeri terrorism, and this has caused Armenia to reevaluate its priorities. Pashinyan wants peace. Who doesn’t? The difference lies in the terms of peace. Secure borders for Armenia and an isolated Artsakh left to the Azeris? Unacceptable!
Armenia is currently enjoying unprecedented support from the West and a slight revival from Russia. Several western democracies have been unusually overt in their criticism of Azerbaijan, demanding a complete withdrawal of the Azeri presence on Armenian territory and the release of all POWs. Russia, perhaps feeling the impact of the western resurgence, recently hosted a tripartite gathering in Sochi. Russia has gone on record opposing the so-called “Zangezur corridor” and is making overtures about CSTO support. Iran has warned Azerbaijan that any changes in the Syunik border region is a red flag. Armenia has started weapons purchases from India, and the relationship seems to have significant potential. While all of this is welcome support for Armenia, they fully understand that it does not apply to Artsakh. While supporting the territorial integrity of Armenia, these same nations revert back to the old rhetoric of “peace” and “a lasting solution” when it comes to Artsakh. It is encouraging to note that only Azerbaijan feels the Artsakh situation is resolved. Nearly all participating nations have stated that the issue is unresolved and needs a resolution. This contrast in support for the two Armenian two states has created a strain between Armenia and Artsakh. The criticism ranges from outright abandonment (particularly from the diaspora) to Armenia being pragmatic. Last week, Putin announced that the western efforts toward Artsakh peace would place Artsakh under Azeri control. He offered an indefinite postponement of the status quo with continued Russian presence. The Russian President obviously is attempting to discredit any western advances while advocating for Russian control. It is doubtful that any Russian presence would include a prosperous democracy in Artsakh’s future. It would follow the path of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as absorbed “protectorates.” For their part, the leaders of Artsakh have stated open support for Russia as an alternative to the horrific future under Azeri control. Armenia continues to support the integrity of the Armenian population of Artsakh and its right to exist, but speaks little of the self-determination that has been the hallmark of the past 30 years. The previous administrations in Armenia took on the role of directly negotiating for Artsakh during the Kocharyan and Sargsyan eras. There was a time early in the conflict when Artsakh was a direct party. As the years have passed, this has become controversial as Armenia’s and Artsakh’s interests have not been fully aligned. Perhaps one positive outcome of the current realities is that Artsakh could eventually be a direct party in the negotiations.
Either way, Armenia cannot abandon Artsakh. We all understand that any governance model under Azerbaijan will result in destruction of significant magnitude. This much has become absolutely clear from the last 30 plus years. We are a people with one nation and two states. All Armenians have a moral and political responsibility to maintain our presence on our historical lands. The loss of Artsakh, aside from the humanitarian crimes that would be committed by Azerbaijan, would have a significant psychological impact on Armenians around the world. Who believes that Azerbaijan and Turkey, with Artsakh in their sights, would not seek to destroy Armenia itself? Only the naive. Armenia must maneuver through the maze of political alliances to secure its borders, but “peace” with Azerbaijan can never be at the expense of Artsakh. We must never confuse peace with Turkish deception. In spite of the geopolitical climate, we are one nation. If Armenia is the center of our global nation, it has the inherent responsibility to ensure our people’s security. The criminal act of Stalin that created the Artsakh theft by Azerbaijan is problematic but not relevant to our responsibilities. Artsakh is eternal. It is our history, and we are all gifted with the inheritance to protect our legacy.